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Observing Tea Garden Ecology Reflections On Modern Tea Development

Author, Zhou Yu (Dictated by Zhou Yu. Uu Xingyi took notes and applied corrections.)

Since the 19th and 20th centuries, the scientific and industrial revolution has brought great changes to agriculture. It has also produced great contributions such as large-scale cultivation of land, more intensive fanning, superior plant varieties, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, etc. Mankind's constant risk of starvation has truly changed as a result of these techniques. As the population of the earth has increased dramatically, they have contributed greatly to the survival of humanity. However, by the end of the 20th century, we gradually came to discover that applying scientific techniques to agriculture in this way, which rely on artificial techniques to manipulate and transform Nature, has ignored the healthy and balance-maintaining benefits of traditional farming.

Adverse effects from human manipulated agricultural products have been continuously discovered in various fields. As a result, more and more people have become aware of the concept of maintaining ecological balance, "This concept is somewhat similar to the notion in the Ancient Chinese Book of Changes of "the mean" or "neutrality" created through harmony with the natural world. It is also similar to the Daoist concepts of the world. Regardless of whether it is animal or plant life, that which is produced through respect for the Nature is all relatively healthy. If it is food that is eaten, it will provide ample nutrients and energy. It will also be free of side-effects.

Searching for agricultural development that respects Nature

Humanity spent one or two centuries to move beyond the problem of insufficient food. However, we also discovered numerous aftereffects resulting from these efforts. Although today science is highly advanced, we may require a long time—perhaps another century or two—to gradually develop agricultural techniques that are more respectful of Nature. Respecting Nature and the ecological balance in order to promote a more healthy existence for all living organisms will likely be an important trend of thought in the future.

No matter whether in China, Asia, or elsewhere in the world, tea is viewed as having important health benefits for the human body. Daoists once viewed it as neidan (a method of internal alchemy); while followers of Confucianism believe that in addition to nourishing the body, it can also cause people to understand their inner disposition. Buddhists were even more inclined to view tea in spiritual terms as something linked with realms of meditation.

Past cultivation of tea was entirely based on planting seeds. Later, Southeast China tea growers discovered that tea trees grown from seed were prone to deviation. Consequently, they worked endlessly to seek out superior varieties and came up with the idea of "layering." This involved applying pressure to the branch of a tea tree to keep it under the soil, and then, after it laid down roots, severing its connection to the original tree, creating a new tree. This is essentially a type of cloning. Utilizing this kind of "layering," the lifespan of a tea tree could be extended indefinitely. By the 20th century, scientists came to feel this layering method was too much trouble. They discovered that a section of the tree could be cut off and used as a graft and would continue to grow. This "cuttage" technique came to be viewed as the best way to maintain superior varieties and guard against deviation, and so it completely took over the mainstream.

Taiwan's Tea Improvement Station as well as Mainland China's Tea Agricultural Research Institute both raise large quantities of so-called superior variety "cuttage" tea and sell them to tea farmers. They may also advise tea growers to chop down existing tea trees and plant these recommended varieties. At first, people found these superior varieties seemed to have more ability to resist disease and insects than the original varieties. After some time had passed, it turned out that "cuttage" trees and accompanying intensive cultivation actually required larger amounts of fertilizer and pesticide.

Quality tea demands bright cliffs and shaded forests

During the time of Lu Yu (733-804) or even farther back, mountain forests where extremely abundant. Tea gardens were developed one small plot at a time along with other plants. During the Tang dynasty, Lu Yu specified the requirements for a good tea garden: "sunlit cliffs and shaded forests." Tea gardens must be located beside a forest. Only a forest accumulates fog. Also, a high level of biodiversity leads to a rich food chain, which helps maintain ecological balance and minimize the risk of insect damage. The humus created by fallen leaves and decomposing organisms leads to rich nutrient levels in the soil. A natural forest does not require any application of fertilizer. The need for food led to large scale clearing of the forest for agricultural development. It completely ignored the natural ability of the ecology to replenish itself, believing that science could solve our problems, including the ones it caused. When we find that a nutrient is lacking, we simply add a synthetic supplement to the ground, Taking tea as an example, if we discover that the leaves require nitrates, we add nitrate fertilizer to the soil resulting in plump and fleshy leaves. Experience in Taiwan teaches us that after clearing a forest and converting the land to growing tea, there is no need to add fertilizer for the first three years or so. The soil still contains ample levels of nutrients. After three years, however, the nutrients required to sustain quality tea leaf growth are no longer sufficient. This leads to a need for fertilizer. Paying attention to quality leads to using organic fertilizer (although organic fertilizer also has many problems, we will ignore them for the moment). The easiest choice is obviously to use chemical fertilizer.

We know that the highest possible nitrogen levels in organic fertilizer is between 9 and 10%. Chemical fertilizer, on the other hand, can be from 20% to over 30%. From the perspective of brewed tea flavor, tea grown in a natural ecology tea garden has rich and multi-leveled flavor. Tea brewed from trees using chemical fertilizer superficially provides aroma and sweet flavor that people usually desire. Careful drinking, though, reveals relatively empty tea liquor. Natural tea of the past had a different composition every brew, leading to rich changes in flavor. Chemically fertilized teas have an extremely monotonous flavor from the first brew to the last. There is no transformation of flavor, leading to significantly reduced artistic value. Additionally, more and more people have found that drinking chemically fertilized tea leads to bodily discomfort. Some people even become nauseous. In the past, tea was purported to have numerous health benefits. One is left to doubt whether this type of overly fertilized tea provides such benefits at all.

"Guttage" tea trees age quickly

Let's further consider the differences between "cutting" and the traditional method of planting from seeds. If planted from seeds, the main roots will endlessly grow downward. Guttage will not lead to a main root, but instead lead to lateral roots and fibrous roots growing along the sides of the tree. This type of tea tree has several special traits. First of all, its lifespan will not be very long. Where do we see evidence of this? We have observed that it will age relatively easily. Yunnan has many hundreds-of-year-old or even nearly one-thousand-year-old tea trees which are still able to be harvested. The tea trees and their leaves are still in fine condition. Cuttage produced tea trees, however, decline quite quickly, requiring replacement after several years.

Secondly, a tree produced from cuttage is equivalent to the unrestricted reproduction of a single tree. This results in the following phenomenon frequently occurring: That is, when a single tree contracts a disease, it spreads easily and an entire stretch of trees contracts the disease. Seed-planted trees have the advantage that each tree has a slightly different genetic make-up. A single tree may catch a disease, while the rest of the surrounding trees are completely unaffected. Ease of contracting and spreading disease represent a large deficiency in this type of life form. It requires reliance on ever increasing quantities of pesticides. Many pesticides penetrate into the tea leaves. Even if current scientific analysis provides evidence that this is harmless, there is no guarantee. From another perspective, humans long ago discovered that close relatives should not marry, since their offspring will be damaged. How is it that we accept that tea produced through cloning will always be healthy? This is irrational, as we have taken away the benefits of natural selection.

Compared to modern standard cuttage grown tea, more and more people are coming to experience the physical pleasure that comes from drinking tea picked from Yunnan's ancient trees. Observing these ancient tea gardens has taught us a significant amount. First,the tea trees all grow very tall and have deep roots. The natural environment surrounding them is extremely healthy, containing numerous other kinds of trees and other plants. Second, these ancient tea trees are essentially all the result of growth from seeds.

We also know that starting in the 1970's Yunnan began developing large-scale cuttage-based taidi (tableland) tea. An example is the new strain "Yunkang Number 10." Numerous existing tea trees have been replaced with shrub-style tea. This type of tea when drank has no Qi and also lacks richness. It is entirely concentrated in the mouth and does not even reach the throat. Additionally, many people have stomach problems after drinking it. Perhaps, like this tea, there are many types of vegetables, fruits and other plants whose flavors during ancient times are lost to us now. At least from tea trees we can clearly see that the original style of tea passed down through the ages is very different from that of modern tea, I believe that the pursuit of Puerh tea is a pursuit of the most natural and the most original—a natural, ecological model of ancient agriculture.

Chinese border region tea sent to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, and even farther to the Western Regions and to Russia, was composed of black tea from Hunan, Hubei, or Sichuan. Tibetan areas such as Tibet and Gansu as well as other Southeast Asian areas drank mostly tea from Yunnan. Yunnan has numerous vast ancient tea gardens. A single area was often tens of thousand of mu (1 mu = 1/6 acre) in size. Some have been abandoned for ages, but today arc once again being harvested. Not only in ancient times, but even today, picking this tea extremely difficult. From southernmost Yunnan's Xishuangbanna, to central Simao, to slightly northern Lincang, and stretching as far as the once-Chinese-controlled Laos and Myanmar—across this vast area ancient trees were surprisingly grown using the same methodology. The distance between the trees was significant—frequently two, three, or even five meters. Many trees arc 300-400 years old or 400-500 years old. Some arc 800-900 years old and a few are even over 1000 years old.

Allowing tea trees to fully reach their growth potential

Because of the attention given to Puerh tea in recent years within and outside of China, people have repeatedly sought out and discovered large ancient tea growing areas. This inspires curiosity: why were there such large scale tea gardens in ancient times? If only for the needs of locals, there would be absolutely no need for such size. Modern Yunnan researchers believe that ancient China maintained the notions of "governing the borders through tea" and the "tea and horse trade." Consequently, such scale was possibly driven by local authorities. For instance, every year certain quantities of tea were required to trade for horses with people of the border areas. Perhaps this tea served as a legal voucher for a small number of businessmen, allowing them to pay taxes and engage in trade. This is similar to the situation of the salt merchants.

Today we can find a large number of tea growing areas with trees approximately 500 years old. The majority have been passed down from the Ming dynasty. The Ming dynasty was very active in promoting the government policy of controlling the border areas through tea. Tea was traded in recognition of allegiance and was also traded for horses. According to historical records, a tea tax system existed as early as the Tang dynasty, leveraging tax on tea sellers. From the perspective of this important source of border trade and national tax, we can surmise that the economic objective of this government policy led to large-scale planting of tea gardens.

Why, though, were tea trees in the past planted with such distance separating them? After all, like today, these people were also growing tea commercially. We speculate the following: tea trees here were unlike those of central China. Large arbor trees generally require relatively large space in which to grow. It is also possibly because the population of Yunnan was very small while land was abundant, so there was no need to densely plant trees. Of course a large amount of land does not necessarily imply that plant separation must be great. For instance, the western United States when developed did not take this agricultural approach. It must have been motivated by some kind of reasoning. This once again leads us to think of the Book of Changes—the source of Chinese philosophy, science, and divination. It states: "look upward to see the state of the Heavens, and downward to observe the arrangement of the Earth," We are also reminded of a few other classics such as The Doctrine of the Mean, which discusses "working to create equilibrium." Not only does it demand "fully developing the nature of men" but also says that only by "fully developing the nature of animals and other objects, can one assist in the transformation and nurturing of the Heavens and Earth." That is to say, men should respect and work together with nature. In addition to using a large territory, we believe that this results in another line of thinking: Namely, that tea trees should be allowed to grow to their full potential.

Yunnan is the birthplace of tea trees, but was perhaps not the first place to drink tea. Today it is understood that the earliest records of tea drinking are from Sichuan. Sichuan also contains numerous ancient tea trees with ages in the hundreds of years and even approaching 1000 years. According to historical records, people had already begun to drink tea by cast iron tea cups at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty (1045B.C.). It is also interesting to note that the father of tea worshiped by numerous Yunnan ethic groups is either central China's Lu Yu or Zhuge Liang (famous 3rd century military strategist). They commonly believe that Zhuge Liang taught their people to grow tea. We know that Zhuge Liang was a very special figure in history. His personality is Confucian, but Daoist factors influenced his skills at astronomy, geography, administration, strategy, and warfare. I have already touched on examples from Confucian classics. A Daoist text regarding methods for growing plants is Liu Zongyuan's "Biography of Tree Planter Guo Tuotuo." It also advocates respect for Nature and allowing objects and animals to reach their full potential.

It is worth further investigating this question of whether it was the guidance of Zhuge Liang that led ancient people to use these sorts of techniques to grow tea trees. We know that Zhuge Liang once traveled southward and left behind the story of the "Seven Captures of Meng Huo." However, many people believe legends of Zhuge Liang traveling to Xishuangbanna and other regions are unlikely. They believe that the farthest he traveled was to areas surrounding Lake Dian near Kunming. It is worth investigating exactly where Zhuge Liang went in Yunnan.

In any case, locals widely believe that Zhuge Liang taught them to grow tea. Perhaps it is a combination of ancient Chinese philosophy and border ethnic groups' beliefs in the relationship between Man and Nature that results in these large interval growing methods. The difference between ancient arbor tea and tea from new trees is increasingly evident. In the extreme case, one kind provides people with a feelingly of vitality and health, while the other may cause discomfort, headaches, and upset stomach.

Today just as organic farming is beginning to become commonplace, we arc fortunate to have this classic example of natural agriculture. In addition to appropriately protecting the original ecology and landscape, we should perform in-depth research. Are there factors besides the separation of the trees? An example is the requirements for selecting the placement of a tea garden: the direction the tea garden' faces, its location on a mountaintop or mountain valley, surrounding mountains, fog and cloud conditions, etc. These are elements of ancient fengshui. Yet another factor that is not fully understood today is the practice of intentionally planting camphor and cassius trees in a tea garden. These trees possess fragrance and can ward off insects. Were any other types of trees intentionally grown? Is there any benefit they can provide? Ancient tea gardens are not only worthy of our protection, we should also explore their significance in terms of ecology, environment, and fengshui. They ought to be able to provide us with a good deal of inspiration. Related organizations should devote experts to long-term research and investigation. Even more importantly, they should use their influence to promote special protection for the ancient tea growing areas of Yunnan, applying for status from the United Nations as a protected natural ecological zone as well as a natural and cultural World Heritage Site. They not only belong to China. They belong to all of mankind.